Foreign policy

Kiran Stacey

Pro-Russian troops in Crimea

Pro-Russian troops in Crimea

As MPs return to Westminster after a tumultuous weekend in Ukraine, recriminations are flying around parliament over who is to blame for allowing Putin to deploy his military forces in Crimea.

For some Tory MPs, the person most at fault is Ed Miliband. By leading his MPs in voting against action in Syria (which would also have meant taking on Russia), he made any western military threat we could issue impotent, they argue. Here, for example, is Sajid Javid, the Treasury minister: Read more

Elizabeth Rigby

Just to pour a bit more controversy over the Conservative Renewal conference (where Tim Loughton made his comments about Sarah Teather) Robert McLean, the chair of the Windsor Conservative Association, was also forced to put out a curious statement. In this he disavowed comments from George Bathhurst, Windsor councillor and a organiser of the conference.

Robert McLean, Chairman of the Windsor Conservative Association, said:

Windsor Conservative Association (‘WCA’) wishes to make clear that it wholly dissociates itself from recent comments made by George Bathurst in relation to the Conservative Renewal conference that do not reflect the views of WCA nor our member of parliament.

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Kiran Stacey

David CameronTwo factors stand out as having contributed to David Cameron’s unprecedented defeat last night at the hands of Labour, and more significantly, government rebels: a pinch of farce and a great deal of hubris.

First the hubris. Cameron recalled parliament to vote on an issue of going to war, without properly having prepared the ground. The case for launching strikes on Syria had not been made, the consequences had not been spelled out, and the intelligence was slim.

This blasé attitude from the government was summed up in Cameron’s answer to one particular question: Read more

Janan Ganesh

Defeat in Thursday night’s parliamentary vote on the principle of military action in Syria is not an existential wound for David Cameron, whatever his more excitable enemies say. But, after several months of good form, the prime minister looks weaker than at any time since taking office more than three years ago. Failing to win over Liberal Democrat MPs in his coalition government is one thing. Being defied by his own Tories is quite another. Prime ministers are simply not supposed to lose House of Commons votes on major matters of foreign policy.

Mr Cameron recalled parliament from its summer recess in the assumption that securing its support for some kind of intervention in Syria would be straightforward. That has turned out to be mortifyingly complacent. And this is not merely hindsight speaking. It should have been obvious after the apparent chemical attack by the Syrian regime earlier this month that the widespread revulsion in Britain was not matched by an appetite to get involved. Voters and MPs were openly sceptical; the armed forces were privately reluctant. Only an assiduous campaign of persuasion would have swung the argument, and it never came. William Hague, Mr Cameron’s well-regarded foreign secretary, was too reticent. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Two big questions remained after David Cameron’s landmark speech on Britain’s role in Europe this morning: would it do enough to please his eurosceptic backbenchers, and how would Ed Miliband respond?

We got the answer to both at PMQs. We know now that for the moment, Cameron has got his party off his back, and that Labour are not about to promise a referendum of their own.

The atmosphere in the Commons was electric as the leaders took their places. The Tory benches were packed with grinning faces – this looked like being a good day for Cameron, and so it proved. He even got a cheer for starting his first answer by saying: Read more

Kiran Stacey

1968 Black Power salute

The 1968 protest which the UK fears Argentina may copy

A week ago, the Sunday Times revealed Whitehall fears about Argentina using the Olympics as a platform for protest against British control of the Falkland Islands. The paper reported:

Ministers are worried about a possible demonstration by Argentine athletes similar to the one staged at the 1968 Games in Mexico City by African-American athletes at the men’s 200m medal ceremony.

Any symbolic gesture by team members would be broadcast worldwide, fuelling tensions between Britain and Argentina. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are already strained.

Since then, Christina Kirchner, the Argentinian president, has tried to reassure anxious Brits and Olympic officials by telling her athletes not to do anything “stupid”. She said:

We’re not stupid. We don’t need to use sport to stand up for our rights. We’ll defend our rights in appropriate forums, like the UN.

Well, just in case the athletes didn’t get the message, Jeremy Browne, the foreign office minister for South America, has put further pressure on the Argentinians. In an interview with the FT, he made it clear the British government would see such a protest as a serious escalation of hostilities (emphasis mine): Read more

Kiran Stacey

Is the government in danger of handing over its reputation for being pro-business to Labour?

William Hague’s message in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph that businesses should “work harder” to promote growth was certainly bold.

At a time when the economy is stagnating and the government’s strategy is increasingly being questioned, turning round and blaming the sector of the economy you’re relying on to turn that round seems like a reckless strategy.

Before we get on to why it’s not a good idea to blame business for not supporting growth, let’s mention why Hague has a point:

  1. The govt is implementing the cuts programme many business groups have supported, and is sticking to it.
  2. Corporation tax is low and getting lower – on its way down to 20 per cent.
  3. Embassies around the world are pushing UK trade as their top priority, and the prime minister has taken huge business delegations on state visits with him on several occasions.

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Kiran Stacey

I wrote a few weeks ago that the number one priority of those at the heart of the coalition, and especially those close to Nick Clegg, was not to have a referendum on Europe. But there are people on his side who think the Lib Dem leader should effectively call the Eurosceptics’ bluff and back a referendum, not just on any new European treaty, but on the UK’s very membership of the union. It is an argument even Clegg used to advance.

Philip Stephens, the FT’s chief political commentator, made this call a few weeks ago in a provocative column (at least for a europhile) entitled Britain’s eurosceptics are right to call for a referendum. In it he argued:

Barring a euro break-up, Britain and its partners are now set on different courses. At some point the divergence will become unsustainable. The Tory sceptics may be right after all. There is a case for an in-or-out referendum. My guess is the sceptics would be sorely disappointed by the outcome. The voters are realists. Much as Brussels may irritate them, they know there is nothing splendid about isolation.

Now YouGov have done some polling that seems to back up Stephens’ conclusions, especially about the outcome of such a referendum. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Douglas Alexander has written a piece for the New Statesman trying to prise open the cracks in the coalition over Europe.

In the run up to this afternoon’s debate on the EU, during which Ed Miliband is expected to paint Cameron as isolated both at home and abroad, the shadow foreign secretary has invited the Lib Dems to work with Labour to get the UK back into the heart of Europe.

He writes:

The roots of what happened on the night of Thursday 8 December lie deep in Cameron’s failure to modernise the Tory party. Just because he puts party interest before the national interest, there is no reason others should do the same. That is why I make a genuine offer to Liberal Democrats to work with us to try to get a better outcome for Britain, between now and when this agreement is likely to be finally tied down in March. Work can and should start immediately both to win back friends and allies and to consider what rules and procedures can avoid Britain’s further marginalisation.

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Kiran Stacey

Nicolas Sarkozy avoids shaking David Cameron's hand

Nicolas Sarkozy avoids shaking David Cameron's hand

So Britain has isolated itself in Europe by refusing to sign up to a deal to save the eurozone because other countries refused to give the UK specific safeguards to protect the single market and the City of London. Tory backbenchers are delighted, but what does the pro-European Lib Dem half of the coalition make of it?

Anyone expecting a massive bust up at the heart of the coalition will have been dismayed to read Nick Clegg’s statement this morning. The deputy prime minister said:

The demands Britain made for safeguards, on which the Coalition Government was united, were modest and reasonable. They were safeguards for the single market, not just the UK.

What we sought to ensure was to maintain a level playing field in financial services and the single market as a whole. This would have retained the UK’s ability to take tougher, not looser, regulatory action to sort out our banking system.

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Kiran Stacey

As Westminster waits for the publication of Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report into whether Liam Fox broke the ministerial code as a result of his friendship with Adam Werritty, Number 10 is drip-feeding new revelations into the public domain.

The latest is that Werritty met other defence ministers: specifically Gerald Howarth and Lord Astor. We don’t know when, where or how often though. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Activists on board the Mavi Marmara before it was raidedAs a former diplomat, you might expect new Tory MP Richard Graham to choose his words carefully, especially because he works as the parliamentary private secretary to FCO minister Lord Howell, and definitely when talking about Israel and the Palestinians. So I was surprised to hear him talking to a fringe event on Sunday describing the Israeli government’s report into last year’s raid by its navy on the Gaza aid flotilla as a “whitewash”.

When talking about the report by the Sri Lankan ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission‘ into the struggle there between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, Graham said:

We know that internal government reports do not have a good track record. The Israeli report into the Gaza flotilla, for example, falls into the whitewash category.

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Kiran Stacey

David Cameron looked comfortable and at ease in the House of Commons chamber on Monday afternoon when updating MPs on what has happened in Libya over the summer.

And well he might: the rebels have overtaken Tripoli, Gaddafi is on the run, and the one major controversy – the discovery of papers suggesting British intelligence colluded with the Gaddafi regime in the rendition of terror suspects – happened under the last government.

But as soon as one set of questions about the conflict ends (even Richard Ottaway, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, who has always been sceptical of the conflict, gave the prime minister credit for the way it has turned out), another begins: namely what happens to our troops now? Read more

Kiran Stacey

Tony Blair with Colonel GaddafiThe revelations in the FT and elsewhere that MI6 appeared to have a close working relationship with the Gaddafi secret services is providing something of a dilemma for the current government.

One one hand, this is an open goal for the coalition to plunge the knife into Labour: to accuse them of collusion with the Gaddafi regime in torturing Libyan dissidents. And there are signs that Tory MPs are doing just that.

Patrick Mercer, the former chairman of the House of Commons subcommittee on counter-terrorism, said over the weekend:

This document seems to indicate that our intelligence services were getting unhealthily close to practices that the British government at the time and its successors rightly condemn.

I trust that the Foreign Secretary will look into this, despite the fact that it did not happen on his watch.

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Kiran Stacey

Syrians protest in Hama

Syrians protest in Hama

After the brutal crackdown by Bashar al-Assad’s troops on protesters in Syria over the weekend, William Hague was pleased to find the Russians scrapping their earlier reluctance to criticise the regime and join the growing global condemnation of Mr Assad.

His diplomats in New York will use the opportunity to try and push through once more a resolution that failed in June, condemning the violence. The resolution will be reworded to take into account this weekend’s events.

But given Russia’s complex political make-up, no one in the Foreign Office is taking anything for granted. One official warned: “It is not until we have sat in the meeting that we can get into how member states may be thinking.” Read more

Kiran Stacey

Apparently it’s a sign of strength to change your mind – at least that’s what David Cameron said yesterday about the sentencing U-turn.

So how’s this for a sign of strength? The foreign office this morning declared proudly on its website an additional £2.2m in funding for the World Service, headlining the announcement “Massive U-turn on BBC world funding”. (H/T to Tim Montgomerie at Conservative Home for the pic.)

Foreign office website at 10.15 on Wednesday morning

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Jo Johnson

I am no expert in military logistics, but I was struck by the extraordinary recent deterioration in the performance of the surface route to the Afghan theatre.

Right now, British troops are acutely dependent on our ability to send supplies by sea to Karachi, where they are unloaded and then taken by road through Pakistan. Ahead of this week’s Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office provided me with a briefing based on its detailed report into the Ministry of Defence’s logistics supply chain. This noted that only 15 per cent of consignments shipped by land through Pakistan between 10 December 2009 and 8 December 2010 arrived within the targeted time of 77-87 days, a fair way off the 75 per cent target. Read more

Kiran Stacey

William HagueLast night the government lost a crucial amendment to their Europe bill in the Lords by a handful of votes.

Peers voted to introduce a “sunset clause” on the entire bill (actually, the entire bill apart from one technical point), which would limit it to only five years. Importantly, this means that the so-called “referendum lock” – whereby any transfer of sovereignty from London to Brussels could only be allowed after a Yes vote in a referendum – would have to be voted on again in five years’ time. Read more

Jim Pickard

When the western coalition invaded Iraq the problem was not the initial military campaign; Saddam Hussein was toppled in just days. It was instead the lack of adequate planning for the post-invasion scenario, with insufficient thought given to how the country would be run after the invasion.

Most news channels are focusing this morning on William Hague’s comments (on the Andrew Marr Show) that Gaddafi’s time is running out. (Some defecting officers, never the most reliable of sources, also told a Sunday newspaper that the regime is crumbling). Read more

Jim Pickard

When Colonel Gaddafi accused the eastern rebels of Al-Qaeda links there was a presumption that this was merely propaganda from the Libyan dictator.

Now, however, a Nato US commander has suggested that intelligence reports indicate a potential “flicker” of al-Qaeda within the resistance. James Stavridis, Nato’s supreme allied commander for Europe, was speaking during Senate testimony today. Here is the relevant transcript:

“We have seen flickers in the intelligence* of potential Al Qaida, Hezbollah. We’ve seen different things. But at this point I don’t have detail sufficient to say that — that there’s a significant Al Qaida presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks. We’ll continue to look at that very closely. It’s part of doing due diligence as we move forward on any kind of relationship.”

The Conservative chair, Baroness Warsi, was asked about this on Sky today; her reply wasn’t exactly reassuring. To quote Politicshome.com:

Baroness Warsi responded to reports that there are “flickers” of Al-Qaeda in the Libyan opposition by saying it was “very concerning” but she is confident that the Interim National Council’s “vision of Libya” is not a “post-Gaddafi Libya that includes Al-Qaeda”. “That is the first I’m hearing

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